Meeting the Homeless Where They Live

 James Petrovich’s research goes beyond collecting data. It often involves tracking down members of his research population, who may be living under bridges, sleeping in cars or drifting from homeless shelter to homeless shelter.
“I’m a community researcher,” said Petrovich, a professor in social work. “If you want to talk to the population that is on the fringe, you have to go out to the fringe.”
While working on his doctorate in social work at the University of Texas at Arlington, Petrovich assessed the use of assistance services by homeless veterans at the Presbyterian Night Shelter in Fort Worth as part of his dissertation research. The study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, revealed that veterans at the shelter use VA outpatient services, but they highly underused VA substance abuse services — indicating more effective outreach is needed.
“I was looking to understand if services were appropriate for the needs of the men living in the shelter and if they were being provided in an efficient and cost-effective manner,” Petrovich said.
His study results were published in Psychiatric Services in June 2014. Based on the same research, Petrovich is working on another paper comparing the veterans’ use of VA and non-VA services.
More recently, in an ethnographic study funded through a TCU grant, Petrovich interviewed 20 unsheltered homeless people, even going under bridges to seek out the most entrenched homeless.
“We learned a lot about how complex homelessness is. There’s no simple story for why someone becomes homeless,” he said. “Their journeys are very twisty and turny with many different stops along the way.” 
Long-term homeless people’s use of emergency medical services and frequent interactions with police result in significant expenses, but they are not using shelters or other services that are less costly to the community. Petrovich said this group requires more novel service approaches. 

“Service providers need to hear perceptions of clients. We looked at the data very carefully and the themes were consistent — there is a segment of people who are homeless who are not going to go to shelters because of the way the services are provided and the environment itself.”
The in-depth research into the local homeless population has led to Petrovich’s helping Catholic Charities Fort Worth start a new nighttime shelter. In his role, the professor determines the needs of the population and provides technical assistance and training for the organization. He also is part of the research team evaluating the effectiveness of programs involved with Directions Home, which is Fort Worth’s plan to make homelessness rare, short term and nonrecurring by 2018.
In addition, Petrovich is part of a two-year study by the Fort Worth Foundation to help plan services, staffing, training and design for a new multi-million dollar central resource facility to serve homeless people and hopefully improve their paths to self-sufficiency.
With the help of three graduate social work students, Petrovich is researching programs across the country to find best practices. He plans to conduct focus groups with people experiencing homelessness to determine what services they need. 
“As a social worker, it is very rewarding to help communities determine whether programs are working or not and help them make necessary adjustments,” Petrovich said. “That kind of effort can filter down and positively affect many people — a reason I became a social worker in the first place.”  

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Meeting the Homeless Where They Live